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What Trans Activists Can Learn from New York

What Trans Activists Can Learn from New York
June 25, 2011 Jennifer Boylan

Jennifer Finney Boylan • Photograph by Augusten Burroughs

Amid all the cheering about marriage equality in New York State, it’s worth remembering that transgender people continue to lag far behind our gay brothers and sisters in the fight for equal rights.  In 36 states, I can still be fired for being my own damned self, and here in Maine we only narrowly defeated a bill this spring that would have actually removed people like me from the Maine Human Rights Act.  But the victory in New York is an occasion not only for joy for our allies, but to observe how this victory took place.

Three quick observations:

1) Marriage equality advocates in this fight were unified. According to the New York Times:  “Five groups pushing for same-sex marriage merged into a single coalition, hired a prominent lobbying firm with ties to Mr. Cuomo’s office and gave themselves a new name: New Yorkers United for Marriage.  Those who veered from the script faced swift reprimand. When Assemblyman Daniel J. O’Donnell, an openly gay Democrat from Manhattan, introduced a same-sex marriage bill in May without first alerting the governor’s office, he was upbraided by Mr. Cohen. “What do you think you’re doing?” the governor’s aide barked over the phone.”

Advocates avoided the traditional urge to  stab each other in the back;  contrast this with the endless internet sniping over the very definition of  the word “transgender;” or with the way trans leaders are constantly belittled and heckled by their own communities.  I can’t think of a single trans activist who has stepped up to the plate in order to work for something bigger than herself who hasn’t been sniped at.  The gay and lesbian community has had plenty of internecine strife over the years, but this time–particularly under the unifiying efforts of Cuomo–a straight, Catholic governor–the movement stood together.

2)  Be public. The victory in NY was an avalanche made possible because of the stones that Harvey Milk–and others–got rolling.  The message: Come Out.  Let people see your face.  Over the last several decades, straight America now associates gay men and lesbians with their neighbors and their own family members.  Again, according to the Times,  it was a group of Republican donors who made the change: “the billionaire Paul Singer, whose son is gay, joined by the hedge fund managers Cliff Asness and Dan Loeb — had the influence and the money to insulate nervous senators from conservative backlash if they supported the marriage measure. And they were inclined to see the issue as one of personal freedom, consistent with their more libertarian views. Within days, the wealthy Republicans sent back word: They were on board.”

Because Singer’s son is out, and because of thousands of gay men and lesbians who have found the courage to live their truth publicly,  the image of gay men and lesbians has changed, both in the eyes of those Republicans, as well as in the eyes of all America.

To be out as trans is harder, and scarier, and trans people have much more to lose by being public. But here in Maine, activists were able to push back at the Statehouse on anti-trans legislation because dozens of trans people, and their allies, stood up and spoke before the Judiciary Committee.  A Republican legislator asked me, in the end, if I would address the Republican caucus;  a transgender middle school student from Orono looked those legislators in the eyes and told them what her life is like.  When legislators see us as human,  things change.  As a woman from Nebraska wrote me after an Oprah Show years ago, “Jenny, the strangest thing about you is that you seem almost like a person someone could know.”

3)  Be patient. We have seen several states wrestle, and fail, with trans protections this year, most notably in Maryland.  We wait year after year for ENDA to make its way through the Congress, and for other gender bills to progress in state capitals (including Albany).  We should remember that no defeat is final. The marriage bill in NY failed twice before– when Democrats had the majority in the Senate; this year it passes when that same house is controlled by Republicans.

Mara Kiesling at NCTE reports that the list of co-sponsors of ENDA in Congress is now growing, and includes Republican allies.  Will we achieve victory this time?  I surely hope so.  Will we achieve victory sooner or later?  This I know.

When we face defeats, we must resist the urge to despair, to hide our faces,  to turn on each other.  The victory in New York shows that it is possible with time.  As Paul Simon sings, “I believe in the future we will suffer no more.  Maybe not in my lifetime, but in yours I feel sure.”

(In case you missed it, here is my testimony to the Maine Judiciary Committee;  I had three minutes, and that’s what they got. My testimony is followed by that of other good allies, all of which contributed to the victory.)

–Jennifer Finney Boylan is professor of English at Colby College, and the author of 12 books. She serves on the board of directors of GLAAD.


  1. Jillian Wess 13 years ago

    I agree that we will have to be patient; we have little choice. We also need to come out more, but the reason that will help is also the reason we don’t — coming out makes us reachable as human beings, for understanding or for ostracism. Coming out does change society, but it’s a slow change, and, as you note, the billionaires will rally to our cause once we come out in sufficient numbers, but it’ll be another twenty years before we’re at that state. As far as unity, well, we have no trans organizations equivalent to Empire State Pride Agenda, Freedom to Marry, Human Rights Campaign, Log Cabin Republicans and Marriage Equality New York. We have a few scattered policy and legal orgs that don’t reach the majority of trans people. I’d like to change that, but our community doesn’t have enough people who have the social or economic resources to create or work within an organization. What we need is an organization to train trans people to organize.

  2. Rebecca Juro 13 years ago

    I think you’re totally off-base here, Jenny. What really won the day for same-sex marriage in NY are the three things politicians respect most which we’ll never have: Numbers, mainstream media coverage, and money. Here in the NYC television viewing area, they had pro-SSM commercials running on all three major networks. They had celebrities and politicians speaking out on the issue seemingly every ten seconds. They got coverage from news networks like MSNBC which not only don’t cover trans people but proactively erase us from stories in which we should legitimately be mentioned, such as the hate crimes bill.

    If you think it’s really all about that stuff you talked about, I think you’re kidding yourself.

  3. Diana 13 years ago

    Here in Connecticut, we followed those same principles and passed the gender inclusive anti-discrimination bill.

    We spoke with a unified voice. All the members of the coalition stayed on message; it is about fairness and equality. While the opposition hammered away about restrooms, we kept on message, that it was about jobs and treating everyone equally.

    We went public with our stories of discrimination. We were always trying to get our message published or on the evening news and we went around the state holding town hall meetings.

    We were patient, out struggle began in 2007 and every year but one (we hired a new community organizer and we rebuilt our base in 2010) we introduced our bill. Each year, we educated the public and our legislators.

    I would like to add one more thing that we had in common with New York, our governors were behind the legislation and actively pushed the bill.

  4. Jillian Wess 13 years ago

    @Rebecca: Do you really think we’ll “never” have numbers, mainstream media coverage, and money? I say we can and we will, but only once we create organizations that reach the majority of trans people. What we need is a plan.

  5. Rebecca Juro 13 years ago

    Sure we will Jill, but probably not until we’re long dead, or at least in the Old Tranny’s Home. The reality is that we’re presented as freaks and sexual deviants by FOX and other conservatives, but our supposed allies in mainstream media like Rachel Maddow and MSNBC can’t be bothered to even include us in stories when they should, much less actually cover our issues, because we don’t represent a lucrative enough demographic to be worth their time like the wealthy and populous gay and lesbian community does. Only one side of the argument is being heard in mainstream media and it certainly isn’t ours.

    We’ve seen this play out over and over, in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland, and now we’ll see it once again in New York. Gay and lesbian orgs focus on marriage and once that’s won they move on to the next marriage battle, leaving trans people twisting in the wind. It’s not at all surprising to me that we’re seeing Sen. Gillibrand now focusing on DOMA and completely ignoring the fact that trans people can still be fired and thrown out of their homes in her state. After all, just like her fellow Democrats, she knows where the money is, and it’s certainly not in the transgender community.

    The reality is that starting organizations takes money, money we don’t have, money the major “LGBT” funding orgs are spending on marriage. We simply don’t represent a large enough population for these people to bother with, and with an unemployment rate of double or more of the national average it’s highly unlikely we’re going to see it happen within our own community for a very long time, at least not until the wealthiest segments of the LGBT community already have what they want in terms of rights.

  6. Babs 13 years ago

    Once again I am amazed that no one looks at states where transgender equality legislation was successful and learn from that experience. My wake up call for transgender advocacy was in 2001 when the New York L&G political community told transpeople to wait their turn and they would come back for them! Hah! Ten years later, it is now 2011 and nothing! Studying, analyzing and learning from that “New York Experience”, I vowed that would not happen in New Jersey and my colleagues (including one who was directly involved in the NY experience) agreed.

    1. We were unified and those who had narrow agendas were left behind because those in a leadership position were focused on legislative success and not on personal egos.
    2. To one degree or another we had achieved relationships with the LGB, women’s and progressive communities who became overt and sometimes enthusiastic allies. Long term relationships yielded very positive dividends with allies who were in a position to help.
    3. We were actively involved in the major LGBT organizations, on boards and executive committees. We were “them” and they were “us”! Our largest organization had over 10% representation on its board and we were not window dressing.
    4. We were involved politically and in a position to interact directly with party leaders, legislators and staff. We were “there” and in a public position to directly dispel any negative stereotypes. “Chicken little” bathroom nonsense was never articulated publicly before passage. Indeed, the NJ State Democratic committee has had only 2 out LGBT members in their history and both have been transgender.
    5. Using relationships we worked both sides of the aisle.
    6. The Legal community, thanks to our own folks and LGB and progressive allies was proactively in favor of transgender equality legislation.
    7. We developed relationships with both the Business and Labor communities, by being public and using common sense framing.
    8. Our overall strategy was fluid and based on micro targeting, and our messaging not based on “one size fits all”.
    9. We did not accept, “No”! We earned enough political capital to actually gain control of our legislation and not accept anything less from any 800 lb political gorilla who wished to water down our legislation.

    You might have thought that someone from across the Hudson might have contacted me for at least some advice or assistance in passing GENDA. As the only transgender member of the Democratic National Committee, I was even elected Vice-Chair of our Eastern Caucus which includes New York, Massachusetts, Maine and Maryland and might in some small way have something positive to offer. But what do I know, I think I get more respect from “straight” folks than “my own”?

    The word, “respect” came to my mind while preparing my remarks in accepting the first John Adler Icon of Equality Award at Garden State Equality’s Legends Gala on June 25th. I met the former Congressman when we were both delegates at the DNC Convention in Boston in 2004 and he was Chair of the NJ Senate Judiciary Committee. In early 2005 our legislation was introduced in the Assembly, but we could not find a sponsor in the Senate. The “progressive leaders” in the Senate would not touch it, basically because “they” thought it would fail and what little rights some transgender people had thanks to an appellate court decision might be compromised.

    I don’t think that any of us ( and I include a powerful gay ally) were prepared to accept failure as an option. We shifted tactics and brought in moderate Democrats and our first Republican sponsor in the Assembly and finally a freshman state Senator who was persuaded by a campaign operative and a friend of mine introduced the bill in the Senate.
    We were now in gear and picked up support right and left in both houses and headed for passage in the “lame duck” session in 2005! Even John who normally didn’t sponsor legislation that went to his committee signed on!

    But then something happened and several pieces of legislation including ours was suddenly frozen. The story is quite complicated and full of inside drama, but in essence the Senate President and Acting Governor refused to allow our bill to come out of committee and the Speaker would not bring the bill in the Assembly knowing it was going nowhere.

    At Governor Corzine’s inaugural in Jan 2006, I received a message from a mutual friend that John was looking to talk to me. He was upset at what happened, wanted to see it pass and offered to attach our bill to another one that amended NJ’s Law Against Discrimination and had actually passed the Senate unanimously, but ran into amendments in the Assembly and like ours was frozen went sent back to the Senate. I really wanted our legislation to stand alone and feared complicating amendments from the other bill which I couldn’t control, and with some trepidation had to refuse his offer.

    He understood and indicated his support as a stand alone bill and kept his promise when in the late fall it finally came up for a vote even to getting rid of an unwanted friendly amendment from perhaps the most powerful lobby at that time! I realized that we had achieved political “respect”. This was validated a year later when we added trans protections to NJ’s Bias Crimes Law, it was a no brainer, didn’t do any formal lobbying and that passed 100-10 after a 2 month formal legislative period start to finish. RESPECT, I believe we “earned” it!

  7. Carla Lewis 13 years ago

    My two cents: all trans people need to come out. Unfortunately, many will become martyrs. More personal, financial and political sacrifice is what it will take.

  8. Quay 13 years ago

    To Rebecca – I’m a gay man and I’ve been very discouraged lately by all the TS not TG bloggers. I agree that some GLB people forget about the T but not all and not me. As Jenny said more unity is what’s needed, not more separatism. Although also please know, I don’t want to conscript anyone into the “GLBT Borg” who doesn’t want to be there.

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